Will the Ashley abusers go to prison?
England played football on Sunday and lost, because two players missed penalties. These two players happened to be black and they received some abuse on twitter which linked the colour of their skin to their missing the penalties. Police are now investigating the tweeter, a “Steve from London”, and his tweets.
So will this charming gentleman end up in prison, Liam Stacey-style, for an offience under the Misuse of Communications act 2003?
I sincerely hope not. As I set out here with reference to the Stacey case, I simply can’t see how this kind of alleged offence can pass the Crown Prosecution Service public interest test, and a prosecution will be more of a victory for celebrity culture than it will be for justice. Further, the Misuse of Communications Act was drawn up before the advent of Twitter and Facebook, and is simply unsuited to dealing with the changes in the way people now communicate with each other/the ether.
Happily for Steve in London, the CPS appears now to have reflected on matters, and the Chief Prosecutor for sport-related offences appears to agree with me:
Harassment through social media is covered by existing legislation, such as the Misuse of Communications Act, and we have already seen successful prosecutions in this area. Where the abuse is racist, we can bring that to the attention of the court as an aggravating feature.
This is an area where I would suggest education, both of what not to do and of how easy it is to detect and prosecute these offences, might prevent the criminalisation of otherwise decent people, but I should stress I would never condone the misuse of social media to commit what would be a hate crime if said face to face.
The proof will be in the pudding, but let us hope this relatively balanced view prevails in this case.
As it happens, racist abuse of the two Ashleys came across my own twitter timeline on Sunday. The tweeter, whom I won’t identify, has clearly now sobered up and regretted his beahviour; the tweet, in which the term “spear chuckers” occurs with reference to the penalty missers, has been deleted, though it remains within an RT from another tweeter, who happens to be black. The latter’s response is interesting in the context of the CPS’s new line on the advantages of education over punishment in this kind of case:
Who the fuck are you kidding with them kinda tweets [name] lad?
The response suggests that the latter tweeter knows the former by name (an a later tweet to an inquiring friend indicates that he knows exactly were he lives), and that he’s calling out his friend/acquaintance out on his temporary, drink-fuelled pseudo-racism (perhaps aimed at impressing others) rather than accusing him of deeply held views.
This ‘calling out’ is, I suggest, a better way forward than dragging the young person before the courts.